Air Force Official Promises More Openness on Long Range Bomber Competition

By Stew Magnuson

The Air Force has heretofore been reluctant to share details about the requirements and strategy for acquiring its next-generation long-range strike bomber, but that will soon change, promised the service's second highest ranking civilian.

"I expect, yes, that we will be revealing more details, and we will be more transparent on that program as we move forward and move further into it than we are right now," Eric Fanning, undersecretary of the Air Force, told Washington, D.C.- based reporters.

There has not been any change to the plan to produce the bomber at the stated price tag of $550 million per aircraft, he added.

"We are still using that as a pretty firm chalk line for those companies that are bidding on it," he said. There are skeptics who believe the $550 million price is too low, and that the Air Force will not get the requirements out of the bomber that it needs, he said.

"This is keeping both the Air Force and the contractors pretty disciplined about what they put into the bomber," he said. The price of $550 million per aircraft figure does not factor in the development costs, he said. He didn't know what the per unit cost what be if the R&D was added, but it wouldn't double it, he said.

The Air Force has not settled on an acquisition strategy for the bomber, he added. "The competition that is in place right now is, in my view, pretty substantial." The contractors that are teaming up are already investing a lot of their own dollars gearing up for the program, he said.

The $550 million per aircraft production cost target is prompting the Air Force and the contractors to make trade offs on requirements, he said.

The long-range bomber is still considered part of a "family of systems," which will include new sensors, weapons and other components beyond the airframe, Fanning said, although he declined to go into further details.

There is also early research-and-development funding in the pipeline for a sixth-generation fighter, he said.

"Even as we're producing the fifth-generation joint strike fighter, we need to invest into the research, science and technology necessary to be looking at sixth generation. It's in the budget," he said, although the documents for the long range budgets have not been released yet. He didn't know offhand how much would be committed to the future fighter.

As for legacy platforms that the Air Force is hoping to retire if Congress gives its approval, such as the A-10 Warthog and U-2 spy plane, Fanning said money will have to come out of its budget if the service has to keep them in its inventory.

"Certainly, if we have to keep the A-10 and the U-2, something else is going to have to give," he said. There are "very big variables out there," he said, referring to the budget past 2015, when sequestration may take hold again.

Choosing the unmanned Global Hawk over the U-2 as the Air Force's primary spy plane was more than simply looking at the cost per flight hour, he said. The Global Hawk is newer, more capable, and can fly longer distances, he said. The contractor, Northrop Grumman, has wrung savings out of the program in terms of logistics, to give it an edge over the U-2, he added.

Fanning also addressed whether the crisis in the Ukraine and a possible trade embargo with Russia would affect supplies of the RD-180 rocket engine, which the U.S. launch industry buys for its Atlas III rockets.

"I have not seen anything on either side suggesting that that supply is in jeopardy," he said.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead

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